Local crime concerns have reached a boil – dominating a mayoral town hall and resulting in a list of recommendations from the Buckhead Council of Neighborhoods – and most of the heat is gathering around possible changes to the way Fulton County judges make bail decisions.

But judges and the district attorney’s office are also pushing back on what they say are some incorrect claims and misunderstandings, and the BCN altered one of its bail-related proposals after hearing from City Council members.

Fulton County Superior Court Chief Judge Robert C. I. McBurney.

Chief Judge Robert C. I. McBurney of Fulton County Superior Court says he sees possible legal changes as especially likely on the issue of allowing judges to see the juvenile records of defendants who are seeking bail – a change he personally prefers. “More information is always better for everyone involved,” he says.

McBurney said he understands public concern about repeat offenders, but also notes that defendants are “presumed innocent – [a point] often lost in this debate” and that crime comes from a larger social context. When deciding whether to grant bail, he said, judges have to sort the “scary person” from the “sick person” – those with drug addictions, mental health issues or both.

“What we have are folks entering the system again and again because we aren’t treating the underlying causes,” McBurney said. “It requires a community investment to address some of those situations.”

Buckhead has been gripped with various crime concerns for about a year as the burglary rate rose last year, particular due to thieves stealing money, guns and other valuables from cars. Violent crime has been a concern as well, and local discontent with Fulton judges has simmered since last summer’s murder and robbery at the Capital City country club. In that case, a 17-year-old suspect was on the streets from a previous armed robbery conviction due to a controversial private probation order from a judge.

Among the results was an “Adopt a Judge” program started by Taryn Chilivis Bowman, a local business owner and sometime political candidate, and now endorsed by the BCN. The “Fulton County Judicial Accountability Task Force,” its official name, right now is a basic sign-up sheet where a resident agrees to follow a particular judge in any Fulton court, learn about their background, show up in their courtrooms, and find out when they are up for election or who appointed them.

Various elected officials, including City Councilmember J.P. Matzigkeit, have since met with McBurney and other judges to learn more about how the system works or doesn’t work.

“If you are a repeat offender and you’ve continued to commit these acts…if you have an ankle bracelet when they catch you, in my view, you are a threat to the community and you need to stay in jail,” Matzigkeit said at the March 14 BCN meeting, calling for judges to have defendants’ complete criminal record available during bail hearings.

Atlanta Police Chief Erika Shields.

At a Feb. 28 town hall held by Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms at the Atlanta History Center, Police Chief Erika Shields blasted Fulton courts and prosecutors for allegedly allowing criminals to return to the streets while the department was successfully lowering crime rates.

“These crimes are not being prosecuted,” Shields repeatedly claimed about car break-ins and similar incidents she said drive Buckhead’s crime rate in comments that drew loud applause. “APD is locking those folks up… We’re the easy one [to criticize] because we’re going to sit here and take the beating.”

District Attorney Paul Howard later said through a spokesperson that Shields’ claims are just not true. In fact, he said, the DA’s Office has prosecuted 95 percent of the 431 car break-in cases that APD officers brought in 2016 through 2019, and already has secured guilty pleas in nearly half of them.

Howard said that of the 431 car break-in cases, the DA’s Office secured indictments on 411 cases and declined to prosecute 13 of them. Of the 411 cases where a defendant was charged, 306 have already had a judgment, including 206 that resulted in guilty pleas, Howard said. The remaining 105 cases are either still in court or have a defendant who failed to appear.

Failure to appear is among the concerns local officials and residents have with the judicial system, as they say too many repeat offenders get out on bail or “signature bond” without money. Maj. Barry Shaw, commander of APD’s Buckhead-area Zone 2 district, said at the BCN meeting that the public scrutiny of judges was paying off.

“I think people have begun to listen,” he said. “I think it’s very safe to say the judges in Fulton, you have their attention. We have already begun to see…people sitting up straighter.”

McBurney acknowledged that judges sometimes grant bail to defendants who are already out on bail or probation for other cases. He said that is part of judicial discretion and, while he won’t “second-guess” other judges, he’s not a fan of such cases.

“That’s the revolving door that really frustrates folks and frustrates me and makes me wish all cases came before me,” he said.

But McBurney added that “what we don’t have are people who are out there shooting someone and immediately out on bond and shoot[ing] someone else… That doesn’t happen because I think everyone out there realizes, ‘This is a scary person, not a sick person.’”

What may change in Fulton, McBurney said, is the ability of judges and prosecutors to see a defendant’s juvenile records at the bail hearing stage. Right now, juvenile records are sealed under the presumptions that people should not have a rap sheet for life due to childhood delinquency.

McBurney said it is increasingly a “legitimate question” whether that should change, especially for defendants who recently turned 17 and thus became adults in the eyes of the criminal law, and where “what have you been up to in the past year?” would be useful for a judge to know.

“So I think folks need to think deeply [about the question], should we make juvenile records open to bail decisions?” said McBurney, adding that there are strong arguments either way.

The city’s own bail and jailing practices have been controversial, too, in a situation that highlights how public education is becoming part of the crime debate.

At Bottoms’ town hall, she was heavily booed when she mentioned her executive order last year that ended the practice of housing U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement detainees in the city jail in exchange for fees. And some residents indicated they thought Bottoms’ general plan to turn the jail into more of a social services center means criminals are left to roam the streets, which she and Shields said is not true.

Bottoms previously signed a City Council ordinance that eliminated cash bonds for people charged in Municipal Court with petty crimes, which has reduced the city jail’s inmate population. The intent is to avoid jailing people who simply cannot afford bail on minor charges. Shields says APD never sent people accused of felonies to the city jail and that it has been primarily “something of a mental institution, a rehab facility.”

In its list of proposed crime-related reforms, the BCN initially supported state legislation that would have wiped out that Municipal Court change. However, it removed the item at the March 14 meeting, partly because the legislation appeared to be dead and partly after City Council Matt Westmoreland explained the intent that it only involved petty crimes like jaywalking.

The BCN’s recommendations continue to include a call for the city jail to house arrestees until they get a probable cause hearing in Municipal Court.

John Ruch

John Ruch is an Atlanta-based journalist. Previously, he was Managing Editor of Reporter Newspapers.